Hand Me Down World, by Lloyd Jones, John Murray RRP£14.99, 320 pages
Lloyd Jones’s Mr Pip (2007) was a devious piece of meta-fiction, set on a South Pacific island during a civil war, in which a fabular treatment of literature’s redemptive power gradually turned very nasty indeed. The Book of Fame, an earlier work reissued in the wake of his Man Booker shortlisting for Mr Pip and written in eye-catching first person plural, followed the All Blacks rugby team’s triumphal progress around the UK on their inaugural tour of 1905. The only point of connection between Hand Me Down World and these two predecessors is its defiant obliquity: the smashed mosaic of a single life, reconfigured out of two dozen scattered tiles.
The life that is laboriously pieced together in this series of “testimonies” belongs – a loaded word, given that she owns practically nothing – to Ines, a young African woman first found working in a Tunisian hotel. The opening scenes, in which she is seduced by a guest, gives birth to his baby and then watches seducer and child skedaddle to Europe, are monitored by a hotel supervisor. A mysterious “inspector”, whose contributions recur, then offers details of her clandestine voyage across the Mediterranean in pursuit, and her near-miraculous survival. Hoodwinked by their traffickers, the boatload of migrants are left clutching buoys miles out to sea. Only Ines has the luck – and fortitude – to make it to the shore.
Several more observers track her haphazard but purposeful progress northward to Berlin. They include the truck driver who gives her a lift, a snail-collecting old woman who offers her shelter, and the members of an alpine hunting party whose dogs rout her out of the brushwood, and one of whose number escorts her over the Austrian border.
Each of these encounters is neatly done, while hinting at the various dangers that lurk in the “serial voices” form. One of them is a faint sense of desultoriness. Another is the fact that, however fleetingly glimpsed, the onlookers are generally active, whereas Ines is passive. Not only do their contributions sometimes divert attention from the main thrust of the narrative; they are occasionally more interesting than she, at this point, seems to be.
Happily, things pick up no end in Berlin, where Ines gets closer to the object she seeks and secures a lodging, at first with a beggar-poet named Bertrand, then as unofficial live-in carer to Ralf, a blind pensioner whose apartment also harbours a second helper whom the older man refers to as “Defoe”. Inevitably, her quest costs money, which Ines raises from items palmed surreptitiously from the flat and sold in second-hand shops. In one of the novel’s rare moments of comedy, these are equally surreptitiously re-purchased and silently replaced by Defoe, with whom she conducts a half-passionate, half-dutiful affair.
Finally, a good two-thirds of the way through the proceedings, we get to Ines’s own account of her life. Even her name, we quickly discover, is someone else’s – borrowed from a woman met on the day of her arrival in Italy and whose unexplained death the “inspector” is bent on deciphering. Inevitably, the trip north starts to take extra dimensions. She remembers the people she met as consistently helpful, but there are still squalid sexual bargains to be sealed; several of the preceding stories come in for serious re-interpretation.
It would be surprising, in something so artfully constructed and delicately nuanced, if metaphor didn’t raise its head, and, sure enough, the latter stages are dense with figurative significance. Defoe’s professional beat is ichthyology, in particular the life-cycle of the lungfish and its ability to live both in and out of water. “At what point,” he wonders, “does it cease to be one thing and come to be the other?” Then there is the kokopu, which “wriggles into a tight space and feeds until the hole it has so gladly wriggled into cannot be wriggled out of ... This is the position I found myself.” On another occasion he tells Ines about the “journey of eels”, and how they move out of the brine in search of freshwater creeks where, as a child, he sat “crouched and ready with a stick and a nail poking out of its end”.
There are other sticks, and other nails, waiting for Ines. Unsurprisingly, her own version of her story is filed from prison. The final chapter is given to Abebi, the child’s surrogate mother. “We knew a small part of her,” Defoe insists at one point, “one side perhaps ... ” In the end, there is a suspicion that practically everything we know, or think we know, about Ines is provisional, subject to an endless process of revision and redefinition. What starts life as the linear narrative of Ines’s progress ends up as something a great deal more problematic.
Novels that rely for their effect on previously solid surfaces dissolving into quicksand very often outstay their welcome, but Hand Me Down World, for all that it sags a little half-way through, has an eerie compulsion.
DJ Taylor is the author of ‘At the Chime of a City Clock’ (Constable)